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3 Lessons Small Businesses Can Learn from Popeye's and the #ChickenSandwichWars

The never-ending #ChickenSandwichWars (Courtesy of Popeye's)

Have we declared an official winner of the #ChickenSandwich wars? Is it Popeye’s the newcomer or is the Chick-fil-A sandwich undefeated? Popeye's finally joined the chicken sandwich club. You’d think it’s a natural progression since they sell chicken but it seems like they should have jumped in sooner.

Popeyes’s, along with occasional chimes from Wendy’s and constant shade from Chick-Fil-A, engaged in friendly competition. To consumers, it looked like a Twitter beef but in the end, they all won. They all benefited from free marketing. Even with people posting bad reviews about some of the chicken sandwiches, any press is good press. There's a reason why lines were wrapped around the corner this summer and they were (and still are) wrapped around the corner by 10 am this morning as everybody impatiently waited for the return of Popeye’s chicken sandwich.

Speaking of summer, Popeye’s debuted the chicken sandwich in August and within a few days.... the sandwich was sold out everywhere. Who ran out? Popeye's. It was new to them. People wanted to know what the hype was about. They ran out of sandwiches, but they were counting extra money at the end of the day.

Is it worth it? I sat in the drive-thru for 20 minutes to get one and I must say it was pretty good. The first thing I noticed was how big it was - busting out the bun on all sides. I appreciate Popeye’s keeping it simple with mayo and pickles. I expected more than 1 pickle for such a large sandwich though so I'm hoping Popeye’s realized that for the relaunch.

There were debates about Popeye's being thrown under the bus because of the "black people' thing. Popeye's reacted just like people expect black businesses to - to fall behind, to not be prepared.

Here's the other thing about this whole situation: there may have been a couple of non-black people bashing Popeye's but most people bashing it were black. Black Twitter, whatever you wanna call it. We are so quick to kill our own kind! I say our own kind because we all know Popeye's is associated with black people. They are in urban areas where predominantly black and brown people live. Soon as something goes awry, there they go, Popeye's can't keep up. And full disclosure - I was one of those people. I tweeted a few things about the chicken sandwich situation, as a frustrated consumer though. I wanted another one and couldn't get one - from ANYWHERE! CEO Cil said, “they've been working on this sandwich for over a year.” They knew exactly what they were doing.

Who's to say this wasn’t deliberate? I’m sticking with my original thought - this was the intent all along for Popeye’s to put the sandwich out to generate hype and see how it's received. If we see demand, then we'll bring it back. In the first 11 days: Popeye's benefited from TV, radio, social media = all free marketing valued at almost $24 million dollars. So, while we are dragging a brand that's closely associated with us, they're STILL winning.

Jose Cil IS the CEO of Popeye's parent company. He even said the Twitter battle exceeded their expectations. They knew they were putting out a good product. Some of the reviews were coming from people who hadn't even TRIED it - they were hoping to get retweeted or be part of the conversation. But again, just when we think (or I take that back, those people probably didn't realize what their negative reviews were doing), we think we're bashing something when that bashing converts to a sale - to more money. Despite all of that, Popeye's saw this experiment as a "massive success." Anytime you don't have to pay people to buy your product, you're winning! The #ChickenWars, they were in the middle of it and not expecting it to blow up like it did. Do you really think they were sitting around saying, "Aw man, people are bashing our chicken sandwich!" They were high-fiving at the fact that because of what people were saying, their drive-thru's were backed up, they ran out. WE, the consumers, caused them to run out. Being sold out of something is a great thing for a business. That means that the demand for your product exceeded the supply.

What do you think is gonna happen when they "restock?" According to the statement, they issued: they aggressively forecasted - meaning the decision-makers sat in a room and said OK if we put this out in X number of stores based on our current store activity we expect to see this number of sandwiches. Then they'd say, no wait, based on this new information, we expect this many. Based on the competition, we expect this. If we promote it we expect this. At the beginning of August, they forecasted 8 weeks of demand through the end of September but and ran out in 2 weeks, probably less than 2 weeks.

I wouldn't be surprised if they have a strategy up their sleeve to bring it back for a holiday promotion or something that's gonna get everybody's attention (I wrote this piece before the announcement was made about the November 3rd debut). I had one and it was damn good and worth the long wait in the drive-thru.

Lessons Learned

There’s a lot to be learned from this friendly competition amongst our favorite brands. Think about the struggles you're dealing with as a small business owner, as a solopreneur, or employee-preneur. Imagine the pressure on Popeye's and their suppliers - they must bang the gavel on their suppliers like "look, we need y'all to keep up with this demand, we need y'all to be able to ship us 800,000 buns when we say so." It's above Popeye's...that's what I need y'all to understand in business - especially small business. Many of us see the surface...the end result. Like the CEO said they'd been working on this for over a year, I'm certain they've had multiple “hold up wait a minute” conversations with suppliers, employees, and focus groups. I didn't hear too many complaints about it being nasty - it was actually really good. The complaints were y'all ran out, bring it back. So now they have an audience - probably expanded beyond the normal customer base, who is waiting, salivating for this chicken sandwich.

Let's unpack this from a small business perspective. Here are 3 takeaways small business owners need to learn from the #ChickenSandwichWars:

1. Address customer feedback quickly. Suppose a customer has a bad experience with your business. Their order arrived 5 days late and they share that bad experience on social media. That bad review could be detrimental to your small business. I get it, you just went for it, it wasn't perfect but you put it out there to determine if your product is worth it. Your customer doesn't care that your suppliers are having inventory issues. Regardless of what the issue or excuse is, you must make it right - right away.

2. Build good relationships with suppliers & vendors. Business is all about relationships. With customers and employees but also with suppliers. Your vendors need to be an integral part of your business planning. When you're establishing routes for the supply chain, for example, it's important to loop your vendors into that conversation. Let them know what you have a going on - if you have a big order coming up, and what they can do to support you in fulfilling orders. Popeye's can keep the chicken sandwich on the menu because their suppliers made the commitment to manage the demand. Whether you have 1 customer or 1 million, it's never too late to build valuable relationships for the benefit of your company.

3. Use social media wisely - go for it! Put your product out. Think about your customers. You may be hoarding a product because you're waiting to perfect it when your customers might be happy with your product as it is. Let them tell you what they want and need from you. There are too many small business owners who launch products & services based on what they think customers want. Not sure what they want? Ask them! The same you announced your launch you can ask for customer feedback. Whether good or bad, it's data you need to determine the long-term viability (and profitability) of your offerings.

I must say, the #ChickenSandwichWar was fun but there are many hidden gems entrepreneurs can take from this. Popeye's is a big company, but they face the same challenges you do as a small business owner. Take advantage of this free course in business 102 and apply these lessons to your business.

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